GARAMBA NATIONAL PARK, Congo -- The park rangers, armed with AK-47s and swapping combat stories, suddenly fell quiet. The driver pulled off the dusty, red road and plunged into the savannah, plowing through tan grass tall enough to envelop our Land Cruiser.
The rangers grew vigilant, heads swiveling, guns locked and loaded, as we drew closer to our final destination: a campsite recently vacated by members of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Our mission: to document how the LRA -- now on the run, its numbers having dwindled to a few hundred fighters -- has turned to elephant poaching to survive.
We were visiting Garamba National Park, near the village of Nagero, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a place that researchers have known for some time is used as an LRA hiding place in central Africa. Garamba is a special place, best known as the final refuge of the last of the wild northern white rhinos, a species last spotted there in 2007. It also provides habitat for elephants, giraffes, buffalo, hippos, leopards, and lions. Unfortunately, like much of the DRC itself, the park also happens to be barely under the control of authorities: just 130 rangers, employed by the international NGO African Parks, patrol an area of the bush approximately the size of Connecticut. They are outnumbered and often outgunned by the LRA. Ugandan forces, which have been deployed to combat the group, don't have access to DRC territory, while the Congolese Army, or FARDC, is often unpaid, unfed, and undisciplined, and has shown little ability to pursue the group. The LRA act as if they "own the park," according to park manager Luis Arranz. "They know the park better than we do."
From their camps in Garamba,the LRA preys on nearby villages, pillaging food and supplies, and kidnapping boys and girls for use as sex slaves or child soldiers. Every month, LRA fighters rob and abduct bicyclists or motorcyclists carting cases of beer, or sacks of flour and beans, from Nagero to the market in Dungu. FARDC soldiers inhabiting grass huts at a checkpoint have experimented with placing "scarecrows" -- stick figures clad in army fatigues and helmets, with car sideview mirrors for heads -- alongside foxholes to dissuade or distract LRA fighters. Of course, battle-hardened rebels who have roamed the jungle for decades are not so easily fooled.
But reports of elephant poaching are new -- rumors of Garamba Park elephants being killed by the LRA only surfaced in mid-2012. LRA escapees told rangers that the orders to kill elephants came directly from Joseph Kony himself. Park rangers sent to monitor a herd of elephants in June 2012 were fired on as they approached the area by people shouting in Acholi, a language spoken in northern Uganda, where the LRA originated. When rangers returned to the scene the next day, they found bags of elephant meat, as well as carcasses with the tusks missing.
The Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project launched a fact-finding mission in January 2013, sending us to Garamba Park to find out more about the involvement of the LRA in poaching elephants. The report we produced, "Kony's Ivory: How Elephant Poaching in Congo Helps Support the Lord's Resistance Army," has been the first to confirm, through eyewitness interviews, that the LRA is in fact supplementing its usual pillaging through trading ivory tusks for food, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. It was on this mission that we visited the former LRA camp, and interviewed some of those who'd gotten an up-close look at the LRA's role in the illicit ivory business.
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The former camp, first discovered in April 2012, lay in a steep ravine, shaded by a thick canopy of trees. Even on our visit, nearly a year later, it still betrayed signs of the LRA's hasty departure. (Rangers told us that LRA lookouts perched in the trees had spotted a Garamba road grader and, mistaking the big, yellow paving machine for some sort of military assault vehicle, fled). The camp was abandoned so hurriedly that when rangers first came upon the site, they found a pot of bush meat -- typically antelope, hippo, or buffalo -- still bubbling away. In their haste, the group left behind items that gave us a sense of daily life in an LRA camp: vinyl tarps and mosquito nets to build shelters; a three-stone rudimentary fireplace for cooking; a dammed-up spring for washing and drinking water; and machete marks in the trunk of a tree, where a lookout had carved a rudimentary ladder.
A young woman who'd escaped the camp told rangers that it had once supported more than 50 armed men, plus 60 women and children; other LRA defectors reported that the camp was their base for about five months.
In interviews, these former rebels told us more about how the group's illicit ivory business works. The details of how the ivory makes it onto the market remain murky, but former LRA members report that the group often kills elephants in the DRC, then transports the ivory to their leader Joseph Kony via the Central Africa Republic (CAR). To avoid capture, Kony shifts between locations on the lawless border region between the CAR, South Sudan, and Darfur, they said.
One defector reported delivering 47 pieces of ivory to Kony; others recalled trading ivory with "Arab businessmen" and officers of the Sudan Armed Forces, in exchange for cash, guns, ammunition, medical supplies, and food. Rangers also told us of escapees who'd reported white helicopters landing in the park to exchange supplies for ivory.
Prices for ivory are at record high levels, "increasingly incentivizing the involvement of armed groups such as the LRA," said the chief executive officer of African Parks, Peter Fernhead. The poaching crisis in central Africa is ongoing: In the 1970s, 20,000 elephants roamed Garamba, while today only 1,800 to 2,500 remain. But the involvement of armed groups -- rangers suspect that beyond the LRA, other armed groups are involved, from Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda, as well as the state-sponsored janjaweed militias from Darfur -- means that poaching is now not only harming elephants, but also sustaining groups that commit horrible atrocities against humans. The LRA alone, for example, is responsible for displacing at least 440,000 people, for abductions of children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves, and heinous acts of looting and killing of civilians across central Africa.
Most illicit ivory from Africa finds its way to China, where a growing middle class sees the delicate carvings as symbols of prosperity. The street value of black market ivory there -- up to $1,300 a pound -- rivals that of cocaine or gold. Part of the long-term solution to poaching includes educating the public in China about the devastating human suffering and the loss of biodiversity that comes about as a result of the demand for more tusks. But there are also real improvements available now to help track and stop highly organized, heavily armed poachers.
Radar technology could be used to peer through Congo's heavy cloud cover and into the bush to detect LRA camps like the one we visited. Infrared sensors could pick out campfires and warm bodies hiding on the savannah (only poachers and rangers spend the night out here). There could be better sharing of ground intelligence, including putting to better use the data from elephant tracking collars, which, in combination with satellite imagery, airborne surveillance, and topographical maps, could help rangers better foresee where the LRA might be planning to set up a base camp, raid a village, or go after the elephants.
Finally, African and Western governments should be providing better training, equipment, and support. These governments need to stand by the Garamba rangers and their peers across Africa, who are part of the front lines in the fight against heavily armed criminal gangs, militias like the LRA, and international terrorists who engage in poaching, such as Somalia's al-Shabab. U.S. President Barack Obama's $10 million commitment to fight poaching, announced this week, is a first step; there are many further steps ahead of us before this fight is over. Effective responses to the intertwined issues of human insecurity, atrocity crimes, and wildlife trafficking must be multi-layered, like the problems they aim to solve.
A group of suspected LRA fighters escorts captives carrying supplies along a ridge line in Garamba, September 2012. (Nuria Ortega/African Parks)